In 2020, Danielle Witt and Ben Rockey-Harris spent months trying to trade their apartment in the District for a house in the suburbs, without any luck. But that August, they finally landed a swell three-bedroom in a tiny Prince George’s County town named Cottage City. Witt, who works in commercial real estate, did research on the home and surrounding area, but there was “one thing I missed,” she says: The house was the site of the events that inspired The Exorcist.
Yes, one of the creepiest horror movies was born in the same bungalow where the couple would now be sleeping. In 1949, according to news stories at the time, a teenage boy, supposedly possessed by demons, was “exorcised” by priests following reports of weird happenings in the house: an inexplicably cold room, a chair that flipped over, and so forth. Those stories captivated a Georgetown student named William Peter Blatty, who later wrote a novel and then a screenplay that became the 1973 film. Though the location is known to Exorcist obsessives—the movie’s director, William Friedkin, filmed himself in the driveway for a documentary—Witt and Rockey-Harris had no clue.
Then Witt stumbled onto the home’s history online. That was probably why the couple had been able to buy the place cheap, she realized, and why several previous contracts had fallen through. But Witt wasn’t disconcerted. As someone with a “long interest in the occult,” she knew that demons, unlike ghosts, possess people rather than real estate. “They do not convey with the house,” she says.
That came as a relief when we dropped by one recent morning for a tour. Sure enough, no demons were in evidence, unless you count the couple’s cats, who haven’t yet learned how to flip armchairs but seem adept at using them as scratching posts. Perhaps it was due to the saging ritual that the owners performed before moving in, but the vibe was more Leave It to Beaver than American Horror Story. So far, the pair reports, there have been no encounters with the supernatural.
There have been run-ins with the public, however. Ever since local author Mark Opsasnick reported the address in a 1999 magazine story, fans have been trekking to the house. Their first visitor was “a dude with a ZZ Top beard,” says Rockey-Harris, who works for a software company. Usually, the demon-seekers just park, snap a pic, and leave. Mostly, the pair view their home’s creepy past as a source of amusement. They’ve borrowed the demon’s moniker, Pazuzu, for their wi-fi name, and they’re toying with the idea of putting it on a vanity license plate. But there is one thing they aren’t messing around with. A friend offered to bring over a Ouija board, nodding to a scene in The Exorcist that takes place in the basement. Witt politely declined. “The last time someone did that,” she says, “they made a movie about my house.”
This article appears in the October 2021 issue of Washingtonian.